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Modernity and Tradition in Islamic Civilization

Updated on October 13, 2019
The Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization
The Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization | Source

Islamic Civilization, throughout the tenure of the Ottoman Empire and beyond, experimented with various modern forms of governance and European models of political, economic, and societal norms. This introduction of modernity is important even today as politicians, diplomats, and international businessmen deal with the contemporary status quo in the Middle East. Two primary sources from the time period, an 1894 letter published in Cairo’s Al-Hilal titled “Should a woman demand all the rights of a man?” and an 1859 manifesto for educational reform in Qajar Iran, provide a window into the clash between modernity and tradition. Both documents also support the notion that understanding historical events in the region is useful for navigating the current realities of the Middle East.

Al-Hilal Cultural Magazine
Al-Hilal Cultural Magazine | Source

First, the letter in Al-Hilal offers an early argument based on difference feminism, emphasizing the vital and unique role of women in Egyptian society. At this time, Egypt enjoyed a more open press relative to the Ottoman Empire territories and faced a transformational crisis in resistance to British occupation. The author makes the daring claim that “she has rights that are no less important than his with regard to modern civilization” (Amin et al. 175). She notes that earlier civilization was dominated by masculine ideas of power in which “victory and triumph went to he who was the most forceful and the strongest at enduring the hardships of long journeys, he who perpetrated the most atrocities and killing of people, he who was far from the woman’s gentle nature and compassionate heart” (Amin et al. 176). Although women did not participate in the massacres and wars of the time, they raised and supported the men who did. Her argument continues that civilization is not based on war and politics alone, nor do we derive happiness solely from these ventures. In fact, “the woman is the axis of this happiness” which is based in the home and family (Amin et al. 177). Serving as a nurturer and the “carrier of life’s burden’s for her man” (Amin et al. 176), the woman plays a vital role and is as deserving as men of rights before the law.

The Eyalet of Egypt in the Ottoman Empire
The Eyalet of Egypt in the Ottoman Empire | Source

This view clashes with many Islamic societal norms, mainly in regard to the implementation of shari’ah law. The introduction of the Quran advanced women’s rights in many ways, such as inheritance and divorce rights, however “the divine revelations did not accord women equal status with men” (Cleveland and Bunton 43). The degree to which shari’ah law influences government and society is still important today. For example, women in Saudi Arabia recently protested for the right to drive and continue to struggle with male guardianship laws and customs. Looking back, the reign of Isma’il the Magnificent also provides insight into this tension as French law was applied to Mixed Courts and National Courts alongside increasingly more restricted shari’ah courts (Cleveland and Bunton 94). Understanding the backlash against Europeanization of Egyptian legal codes and how they interact with shari’ah law in the past can explain current conflicts.

Isma'il the Magnificent
Isma'il the Magnificent | Source

In terms of education, the manifesto for educational reform in Qajar Iran comes at a time of military modernization due to a defeat at the hands of Russian forces and a need to reform Iranian policy “in order to strengthen the country in the face of increasingly strong, commercially invasive, and colonizing European powers” (Amin et al. 43). Qajar Iran held onto shari’ah law and still honored the rank of the ulama in contrast to other regions during the Tanzimat (Cleveland and Bunton 106). The Qajar shahs, namely Nasar al-Din, had little power and military strength as tribes remained strong, so centralization was more difficult (Cleveland and Bunton 105). Furthermore, this call for educational reform came after Muhammad Ali reformed education in Egypt and invested in printing presses and language instruction (Cleveland and Bunton 72). Additionally, Sultan Mahmud II had mimicked the European structure of education with an army medical school and Imperial War College after eliminating the Ottoman Janissary system (Cleveland and Bunton 80).

Qajar Women
Qajar Women | Source

The author of this manifesto pushes for teaching Arabic and Persian as a gateway to knowledge, while also incorporating religious prayer and fasting and teaching Persian medical practices instead of questionable European methods (Amin et al. 46). Goals of educational reformers in Iran at the time “broadened to include calls for compulsory, universal primary education for all Iranians as a building-block for a modern citizenry” (Amin et al. 44). They hoped to provide stipends for education and grant graduates military positions as an incentive (Amin et al. 47). These were all common themes and it was typical to propose language instruction in tongues that would foster diplomacy and the spread of published information. In Iran, a greater tension and difficulty in reforming education persisted. This historical development is significant today as Iran maintains its Shi’a majority with a large influence on society and governance. Looking back, the Shi’a ulama had an important role in challenging colonial power and modern influence with the Tobacco Protest of 1891 (Cleveland and Bunton 108). Additionally, it is useful to understand how Britain and Russia utilized Iran as a buffer state, but vied for influence over its government and financial concessions (Cleveland and Bunton 107). This history leaves it mark on Iran today, especially as it is considered in relation to Middle Eastern regions with more welcoming approaches to modernity.

Iranian Tobacco Protest Movement, 1891-1892
Iranian Tobacco Protest Movement, 1891-1892 | Source

Concluding Thoughts

The two primary sources, although dealing with different topics, each reveal the influence of modernity during times of reform in Islamic Civilization. Calls for women’s rights continue to this day in the Middle East and education remains an important factor in the success of a state and both the continuation and alteration of tradition. Whereas Egypt experienced heavier European influence and more rapid modernization, Iran still transformed in some similar ways. In both cases, it is important to look at the influence of Great Powers like Britain, France, and Russia. The Middle East underwent extreme Western influence during this era and the scars of colonialism are apparent today. When we look at women’s rights in Saudi Arabia or even the potential for the U.S. to go to war with Iran now, all of this history plays a part in how situations must be understood and dealt with.


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